When I first moved to South East London, I couldn’t go 40 minutes without someone mentioning a pizzeria named Theo’s.
“You know where’s really good for pizza? Theo’s,” friends would say. “Have you ever had the chili sauce at Theo’s in Camberwell? It’s incredible and homemade,” I was told by colleagues. By the time strangers were informing me that my “entire concept of pizza will be turned inside out by the perfect Neapolitan creations that grace the marble table tops of Theo’s,” I had got the picture.
Having now visited Theo’s numerous times, I consider myself part of this proselytising church. And yet, while the pizzeria is rightfully famous for its Neapolitan sourdough pizzas and spicy yet sour chili sauce, another dish also deserves some of this glory. I present to you, the Theo’s dessert panuozzo. In other words, a really fucking good ice cream sandwich.
Ice cream sandwiches are popular across Italy, but particularly in Sicily, where they usually consist of a brioche bun filled with ice cream and are eaten—idyllically—for breakfast. However, Theo’s version, thought up by chef and owner Theo Lewis, uses pizza dough to encase the ice cream.
“It was a bit of a take on the brioche,” Lewis tells me, as we sit down at the communal table in the middle of the restaurant. “The dough that we use is amazingly versatile, so if you fry it, put loads of icing sugar on it, and put ice cream in the middle of it, it's gonna work.”
Lewis came up with the idea for an ice cream pizza dough sandwich after visiting his sister in Italy.
“I've been a chef since I left school,” he explains. “When I was getting into food, I went to visit my sister in Rome, and they do these … they don't call it panuozzo, it's called pizza bianca. They sell them at delis, cut them open, and fill them. I think it was from then that I had this sandwich thing.”
That “sandwich thing” became the restaurant’s lunchtime menu: panuozzi made from wood-fired pizza dough, sliced open and filled with things like Parma ham and mozzarella or leek and provolone. Soon, Lewis came up with a clever way of getting his panuozzi on the dinner menu, i.e. by stuffing them full of ice cream.
“All the food here is super simple,” says Lewis. “It's all based around it being a tasty thing that's easy to eat, and when we were putting the menu together it was sort of ‘let's just fry the dough.’ I wanted some kind of ice cream sandwich, let's see how that works.”
“It was something easy,” he continues, “[as] we could change the flavours of the ice cream. So it was on the menu from day one, and people were into it.”
The ice cream in Theo’s panuozzi, previously supplied legendary ice cream connoisseur Kitty Travers and now from Ice Cream Union, comes in a variety of flavours, allowing diners to mix and match in their sandwich.
“I tend to love nutty ice cream—I love pistachio, I love peanut butter,” says Lewis. “Generally, the flavours are around nutty things, but we've also got classic vanilla and chocolate.”
All this talk of ice cream has made me hungry, so Lewis takes me to the kitchen where chef Valentino Fontana will construct the magical ice cream panuozzo.
Fontana starts by shaping the pizza dough into a pizzette-shape, before chucking it into the deep fryer, where it puffs up and turns a golden brown in the hot oil. After a few minutes, he takes the pizza dough (now more like a crispy bun) out of the fryer and cuts it open, ready for the ice cream filling. At this point, Fontana decides that the regular two scoops don’t look quite beautiful enough, so adds an extra few scoops of strawberry and pistachio to really bulk the panuozzo out. Oh no, I think, four scoops of ice cream in a giant fried dough ball for me to eat.
Cracking the panuozzo’s crispy dough shell and reaching the soft ice cream centre is as just as life-changing as the first time I tried it. The saltiness of the dough compliments the sugary dusting, and as the scoops of strawberry and pistachio melt, the dough softens enough to mop it up. Blissfully, I tear the dough apart and dip it into the forming pools of ice cream. You don’t look pretty eating it but who cares? It’s ice cream in a fried dough ball
With this level of perfection, I wonder whether Lewis has ever thought about altering the recipe?
“I think the ice cream panuozzo is pretty set,” he says. Then he pauses, and thinks. “We do do different affogatos with different liquors. I suppose we could do something with bread and ice cream and booze. It might add something to it.”
And there was me thinking the ice cream panuozzo couldn’t get any better.